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Panel Ignores Pleas to Reform Defense Budget

A Republican-led defense panel in Congress is set to vote on a proposed budget that ignores bipartisan pleas to protect the military's long-term solvency by shrinking the workforce, closing bases and limiting troop pay raises.

The House Armed Services Committee, headed by Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., is scheduled to meet June 5 to amend, or mark-up, its version of the 2014 defense authorization bill. The legislation sets policy goals and spending targets for fiscal 2014, which begins Oct. 1.

"We serve well aware of our obligation not only to national security, but to the men and women in uniform that provide it," McKeon said in a statement. "It is our duty to give them the tools to ensure they are ready, capable, and safe."

The bill, H.R.1960, would authorize $552 billion in defense spending and $86 billion in war spending. That's higher than what's allowed under automatic budget cuts known as sequestration. The measure would be paid for by reducing non-defense portions of the federal budget -- a move opposed by the Democratic-led Senate and White House.

Outside experts are more concerned with where the money is going rather than the overall size of the defense budget.

For example, the cost of the military's health care system almost tripled to $52 billion in 2012 from $19 billion in 2001. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates in 2009 famously warned Congress that “health care is eating the department alive.”

Lawmakers have repeatedly rejected a proposal to increase the enrollment fee that working-age retirees pay to use the military health system, called Tricare. The fee, unchanged since 1995, is set at $460 for a family. By comparison, the average family in the U.S. pays more than $4,300 toward the cost of health coverage, according to a 2012 study sponsored by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

In addition, the Pentagon maintains 2.3 billion square feet of buildings and infrastructure -- 20 percent more than what it needs; its civilian workforce is 17 percent larger than what it was in fiscal 2001 (its active-duty force is only 3.4 percent bigger); and the compensation cost per service member rose 4.1 percent annually over the past decade, according to a letter a bipartisan group of experts at think tanks in Washington, D.C., sent to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and leaders of congressional defense committees.

McKeon's draft version of the legislation rejects the Pentagon's requests to begin the process of shuttering bases, limiting troops' pay raises to 1 percent and increasing some Tricare fees.

McKeon defended provisions in the bill for helping the military combat sexual assault by establishing minimum sentencing guidelines and preventing commanders from overturning a jury's verdict, improving readiness by boosting flying hours and training exercises, and reducing "wasteful bureaucracy" in part by cutting two dozen flag officer billets.

It also supports "vital" weapons platforms such as the CVN 78 aircraft carrier, E-2D Hawkeye surveillance aircraft, C-130 cargo plane, KC-46 refueling tanker, long-range strike bomber, F/A-18 Super Hornet, amphibious combat vehicle, MQ-9 Reaper drone and F-15 and F-16 engines, McKeon said.

Like the White House's, the House panel's spending plan assumes Republicans and Democrats will reach a deal to avoid the automatic budget cuts, even though the parties remain at an impasse over taxes and spending. Defense Department officials have begun planning for scenarios in which the spending reductions continue into next year.

Even if the cuts were somehow avoided, the Pentagon needs to make significant changes to avoid bankrupting key areas of the budget, according to Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and one of the letter's 25 signatories.

If personnel, operation and maintenance costs keep rising, they may consume the “entire defense budget” by 2024, leaving no funding for weapons procurement, military construction or family housing, he wrote in a budget briefing from April.

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